The tiny remnants of prokaryotic and algal life were found in an ancient halite crystal on May 11. Announced by researchers at the Geological Society of America, the tiny creatures were found within microscopic bubbles of liquid in the crystal, known as fluid inclusions. These miniscule bubbles function as microhabitats for the colonies to live in.
Now the scientists plan to crack these crystals open, discovering whether life is still going inside.
For those concerned about the consequences of bringing 830-million-year-old microorganisms into the 21st Century, researchers insist the process will not be the “bad b-movie” plot it sounds like.
Study author Kathy Benison, a geologist at West Virginia University, told NPR: “It does sound like a really bad B-movie, but there is a lot of detailed work that’s been going on for years to try to figure out how to do that in the safest possible way”.
Researchers used several imaging techniques to study fluid inclusions in a chunk of halite from the 820-million-year-old Brown Formation in central Australia.
The organic solids and liquids discovered were consistent in size, shape, and fluorescent response to cells of prokaryotes and algae.
The most widely known form of prokaryotic organism is bacteria.
This shows that microorganisms can stay well preserved in halite over a period of hundreds of millions of years.
The researchers add this has implications for the search for alien life.
Similar biosignatures may be discovered in chemical sediments from Mars, were large salt deposits have been identified as evidence of ancient liquid reservoirs.
Previously, living prokaryotes have been extracted from halite dating back 250 million years, making the possibility of them reaching 830 million seem conceivable.
The researchers wrote: “Possible survival of microorganisms over geologic time scales is not fully understood,’ the researchers wrote in their study.
“’It has been suggested that radiation would destroy organic matter over long time periods, yet Nicastro et al. (2002) found that buried 250 million-year-old halite was exposed to only negligible amounts of radiation.
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“Additionally, microorganisms may survive in fluid inclusions by metabolic changes, including starvation survival and cyst stages, and coexistence with organic compounds or dead cells that could serve as nutrient sources.”
Biologist Bonnie Baxter of Westminster College in Salt Lake City, who wasn’t involved in the study, reassured concerned onlookers that the study was not going to bring about the end of the world as we know it.
She told NPR: “An environmental organism that has never seen a human is not going to have the mechanism to get inside of us and cause disease.
“So I personally, from a science perspective, have no fear of that.”